The Australian Human Rights Centre (AHRC) hosted a one-day workshop which I attended on 2 February 2017. The workshop titled ‘Key Challenges in Children’s Rights’ brought together lawyers, academics and civil society professionals to discuss contemporary challenges to the protection and realisation of children’s rights in Australia and internationally.
Megan Mitchell, the National Children’s Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission, opened the workshop by outlining the key issues facing children’s rights in Australia including the impact of family violence on children, children’s mental health, and exposure to online harm via social media and the internet generally. The Commissioner highlighted the concerning correlation between witnessing, and being subjected to, family violence and children’s mental health and the high incidence of self-harm and suicide. Recommending that intervention happen earlier in a child’s life regarding family violence, the Commissioner noted the need to address high rates of suicide amongst children in Australia. She also pointed to the harmful effects of online use by children including bullying, racism, pornography and commercial exploitation.
The first session, chaired by Professor Andrea Durbach, Director of AHRC, commenced with Professor Elizabeth Handsley, Flinders Law School, Flinders University offering a deeply thought provoking and concerning discussion about food marketing and children’s rights. The presentation focused on Article 17 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); the Children’s Rights and Business Principles which can be found here; the WHO Set of Recommendations on the Marketing of Foods and Non-Alcoholic Beverages to Children click here to read more; and an insightful overview of some of the limitations of industry codes as was seen in the Munchables complaint. In this case the Advertising Standards Board considered whether the AANA Food and Beverages Advertising and Marketing Communications Code (the Food Code) had been breached, namely Codes 2.1 and 3.4. The Board found the advertisement did not breach the codes and the case was dismissed highlighting some of the limitations of seeking legal recourse regarding misleading and deceptive advertising targeted towards children.
Equally thought provoking and concerning was Associate Professor Anna Coady’s presentation about children’s housing and education rights. Anna Coady is the Director of Kingsford Legal Centre and the recent recipient of the 2016 Australian Human Rights Commission Law Award. The focal point of this presentation was the use of case studies to highlight two challenges for children in Australia. First, the fact that there is no domestic legal right to housing, and second, the inability to exercise a child’s legal right to education due to lack of resources. With housing rights, Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) provides for the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to adequate housing. Domestically, there is tenancy law and anti-discrimination law which provide some legal protections for children but do not afford a legal right to housing itself. Ms Coady emphasised some of the challenges facing children and their families when confronted with housing issues, in particular with the costs and delays in bringing a legal action. Another concerning area which poses great challenges is in education and disability, whereby children with disabilities are finding it extremely more difficult to access education. Often coming up against large government departments, children and their families often do not have the resources, or the will, to seek justice. Associate Professor Coady concluded by stressing the importance and need for a rights-based system with housing and education to protect children’s rights.
The second session was chaired by Lucas Lixinski, Senior Lecturer, UNSW. Professor Chris Cuneen, UNSW, spoke about human rights issues arising in the general operation of the juvenile justice system and the enduring violations Indigenous children face in such a system. Professor Cuneen covered a wide range of topics from policing and freedom of movement and association to courts and judicial proceedings, privacy and penal detention. He highlighted the treatment and conditions of children in detention, and spoke about the horrendous condition of children spending up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. On a positive note, there seems to be a general decline in the rate of detention, although I thought Professor Cuneen was being far too humble in speaking about the decline as there remains periods within the last 10 years where the rate has increased and then decreased several times. Inspiring and informative, this presentation reminded me of the need to remain cognizant and vigilant in the fight for human rights for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, especially their children.
The workshop had an international focus with Meda Couzens, Honorary Research Fellow at University of KwaZulu-Natal, speaking about the contribution of human rights commission and the public prosecutor in protecting the socio-economic right of children in South Africa. With the costs and delays of litigation often being deterrents to accessing the justice system, hearing about alternatives to justice in South Africa was an important part of the workshop. As legal advisors we should always factor into the advice we provide to clients alternate and affordable ways of resolving legal issues.
Continuing with the international focus, the afternoon and final session was chaired by Professor of International Law, Andrew Byrnes, UNSW, and Chair of AHRC. Madeline Gleeson Senior Research Associate at the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law delivered another great presentation and spoke about the children detained on Naura and Manus Islands, and rightly emphasised that offshore processing detention is no place for a child. Unni Krishnan, Director, Emergency Health Unit Asia and Pacific for Save the Children Australia, placed children’s rights within the context of emergency situations facing children globally. The refugee crisis in Syria and surrounding countries was discussed in the context of children fleeing countries on boats and facing the unenviable journey across the Mediterranean. The interplay of international law and emergency situations raises important legal issues on how best to protect children in these circumstances.
The keynote paper was presented by Professor of International Human Rights Law, Aoife Nolan, Nottingham University. Her presentation was titled ‘Child Poverty, Child Rights and Development’. Uncompromisingly direct, honest and fast-paced, the presentation focused on key obligations imposed by Article 4 of the CRC, and other economic and social rights (ESR), provided by the Convention including, inter alia, education (Arts 28, 29), adequate standard of living (Art 27), health (Art 24) and disability rights ((Art 23). The general principles of non-discrimination (Art 2), best interests (Art 3(1)), right to survival and development (At 6) and right to express views (Art 12) were discussed with an emphasis that ‘these principles should steer all law, policy-making and programming on children including anti-poverty work’. The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was discussed in tandem with State obligations in implementing the 2030 Agenda, and the risk that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) may not be implemented or monitored from a child’s rights framework. The role of children and their voice in the development of these goals may once again not be heard.
The workshop reinforced for me the need that children must be afforded special protection to ensure they are safe from harm. The reason behind this thinking is that the voice of the child is often not heard, and whilst there has been growth in the area of children’s rights, accessing and exercising them remain a challenge, and for many, often impossible. Lack of resources, low socio-economic backgrounds, and the various other social determinants of health, often impact on a child’s capacity to access and exercise their human rights. It is hoped with the continuing assistance from lawyers, social workers and civil society that a child rights-based framework can be used to inform law, policy and education, and that children are afforded the special protection they so rightly need and deserve.
3 February 2017
Madeleine Bridgett, Barrister, 6 St James Hall Chambers
Photos by: AHRC